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by John Piper

The most ultimate and the most central and most foundational reality that exists is God. Before there was a universe, there was God. God is eternal with no beginning and no ending. He said to Moses, “Tell them I Am sent you. I Am who I Am.” He’s absolute. Everything else is derivative. Everything else is dependent including all human beings us. Therefore, God is the most important being and the most valuable being that exists. Everything else has meaning and everything else has worth because of its connection to and its derivation from God and his worth. Everything has meaning and worth because it mirrors more or less God’s worth and God’s truth. His truth, his goodness, his beauty define all that is really true, all that is really good, and all that is beautiful. That’s what it means to be God.

In His Image

That absolute all-creating, all-originating, all-sustaining God created everything else including human beings, and he created us human beings in his own image (Genesis 1:27), which means that he created us with the rational and the moral and the affectional capacities to image him. Images are made to image. The meaning of being created in the image of God is that we have a destiny or a design or a capacity to image God, to mirror God, to reflect God. That’s what I mean to be created in the image of God. We are to magnify our Maker, so his goodness and his beauty and his truth are defined. Expression and echo mirror in us.

For His Glory

The Bible says, “Bring my sons from afar, my daughters from the ends of the earth, everyone whom I created for my glory.” Every human being is created to make much of God, to put his glory on display. That’s why every human being that is in New York is in New York — to display the glory of God for what he really is like according to his infinite value or 1 Corinthians 10:31 that was Isaiah 43:7. First Corinthians 10:31: “Whatever you do, whether you eat or drink, do everything to the glory of God.”

Absolutely every person in every aspect of their lives from the biggest to the little is to live out the worth of God, the value of God, the beauty and goodness of God. Since God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him, he designed us so that he himself and only he would be our supreme happiness because that’s the way you bring his glory to fullest expression.

If you’re bored with God, he’s not honored by you or glorified by you. If you are thrilled with God and deeply satisfied with God in the moment of your greatest suffering, then he has shown to be valuable in your life. God designed you for his glory, that is he designed you to be happy supremely in him above all other things. Knowing God, admiring God, treasuring God, trusting God, being near God, reflecting God, that’s what we were made for. All the people everywhere in every ethnic group on the planet have that as their God-appointed calling and reason for being. God is utterly supreme in our affections and we are utterly satisfied in his perfections. That’s the way he set it up.

The Greatest Issue in the World

The greatest issue in the world, therefore, is that not a single person in this room or on this planet fulfills that design, none. That’s the biggest problem in New York City, Minneapolis, Bangkok, and Beijing. It is the biggest problem in the world by far. We have all sinned. We’ve all exchanged that glory that we were made to enjoy and magnify. We’ve exchanged it for images — especially the one in the mirror — and we find our satisfaction not in knowing God or admiring God or treasuring God or trusting or reflecting God, but we find our pleasure in ourselves being exalted. We want to be made much of ourselves. It feels so good to be made much of and it does not feel good to human beings to make much of God. We are all fallen.

We are bent away from God. We are rebels. We are blind, treasuring the creature over the Creator thus belittling the creator and committing treason against our King. Every one of you has done that. Every person on the planet is guilty of treason. That’s the biggest problem in the world. When a whole planet commits treason against her King, that’s the biggest problem. Now in God’s unimpeachable justice, he opposes us therefore with great wrath. He is very angry at the human race, which means that we would be utterly and eternally lost, undone, desperate, going to hell.

Love Intervenes

We would be undone eternally if God weren’t more than unimpeachably just, if God didn’t somehow undertake for this rebellious planet with all of us rebels, selfish, self-exalting human beings to intervene somehow on a rescue operation that made it possible for those rebels to have amnesty and be reconciled back to making much of him and being supremely happy in it forever. That’s what he did. He entered history 2,000 years ago in the person of Jesus Christ — fully divine, fully and perfectly human Son of God, Jesus Christ. He said this when he came, “The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28). Isaiah said,

Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows, yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. He was wounded for our transgressions. He was bruised for our iniquities. Upon him was the chastisement that made us whole and by his stripes, we are healed. We have all like sheep gone astray and turned every one to his own way, and the Lord God Almighty has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:4–6)

That’s 700 years before it happened. Or Paul said, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, cursed it is everyone who hangs on a tree” (Galatians 3:13). He did that intentionally to take that anger and that wrath and that curse on himself so that he can assemble a people who are forgiving when there’s no wrath against them anymore.

Or Paul in Romans 8:3: “What the law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did, sending his own son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin. He condemned sin in the flesh.” Whose sin? Jesus didn’t have any. Mine. Whose flesh? Not mine, Jesus’s. This is called substitution. Jesus sent by the Father to be a substitute so that all the punishment I deserved went on him, all the righteousness I couldn’t but should have performed, he completed, and the death I should have died, he walked into, and it spits him out and he triumphs. He climbs over it. That is what he did for his people: punished and canceled all their sin in Christ, performed and provided all their righteousness in Christ, absorbed and removed all the wrath of God against them, and purchased and secured their adoption into the family and their eternal happiness.

Free for You, and for Me

Christ did that by dying and rising again for them. That’s the gospel of Jesus Christ, the good news of God for this rebellious planet. It comes to consummation in individual lives when they ask: “You said he did that for his family?” That’s right I did. He did that for his elect. Yes. He did that for his redeemed people. Yes. “How do I get in? I mean can I get in?” And the answer is Yes. By grace are you saved through faith and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God, not of works lest anyone should boast, so by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8). Faith means when I hear that message, I say that is the best news I’ve ever heard for a rebel like me with the wrath of God on him, and you embrace it and receive it for the treasure that it is. That’s faith, and it’s free for the having for anybody in this room or anybody watching. Anybody who will receive it as their supreme treasure has it and all of that is valid for them.

The Gospel Explains and Undermines Racism

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Can you imagine wanting to be colorblind? And yet I hear that hope all the time.

When I speak with people about ethnic and racial diversity, it’s not long before I hear, “I don’t see color. I’m colorblind! My parents taught me not to see color.”

The phrase is trying to express that all people are people, and that color doesn’t matter. I’ve also heard colorblindness cited as a defense against racism: “I’m not racist. I love all people. In fact, I’m colorblind.”

But I disagree.

I’d like to suggest that we aren’t colorblind, we don’t need to be colorblind, and we actually should strive to not be colorblind. Colorblindness leads us in the wrong direction. Instead, I want to encourage us to be colorsmart. Here are four reasons why.

1. It’s Not Realistic

I’m an African-American woman. I cannot—and crucially, I have no desire to—erase the fact that God made me this way. There’s no hiding my milky-brown, freckled skin. I am who I am. When I walk into a room and I’m the only black woman, it’s obvious. I know it; you know it; we all know it. It’s ridiculous to pretend otherwise.

This doesn’t mean we need to act awkward around each other. If we’ve embraced the fact that God has created us as equals, there’s no reason for awkwardness. If you encounter someone ethnically different from you, it’s unrealistic, unhelpful, and possibly unloving to pretend you don’t notice. When your child says, “Mommy, why is that woman wearing a dot on her forehead?” don’t shush him quiet out of embarrassment. Take the question as an opportunity to positively explain her culture.

Instead of pretending we’re colorblind, let’s celebrate God’s creation and be colorsmart.

2. It Misses the Opportunity to Celebrate God’s Good Design

Colorblindness seeks to ignore or flatten the differences between us. Being colorsmart, however, enables us to see others as crafted in God’s image—just like us—while still acknowledging the beauty of our differences. We’re all equally created to reflect aspects of our Creator God. Nevertheless, he creates each of us uniquely. This should be proactively acknowledged and celebrated rather than fearfully ignored.

The reality is we’re not all the same in regard to skin color, interests, likes, gifts, and desires. God made us differently for a purpose: his manifold glory. Instead of striving to be colorblind, then, let’s recognize these differences in ways that express genuine love for neighbor and gratitude for the beauty of God’s flawless design.

Don’t we want to celebrate who God designed us to be? We should want our kids to rejoice that God created them the way they are and others the way they are. That’s the beautiful reality of creation.

3. The Gospel Is for All Nations

The most important reason to be colorsmart is that the gospel is for every nation. God celebrates his creation and redemption of all kinds of people.

The Bible tells us that we sinned, putting everything out of order, leading to the racial hatred we tragically see throughout history and still today. But Scripture also shows us how God is working for the redemption of all people through Christ. He’s glorified now when redeemed rebels from all nations worship him as one. We can see the fulfillment of his promise to redeem every tribe, tongue, and nation when we gather, fellowship, and worship with those who are different from us.

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Proclaim Love in Word and Deed

The words “hate,” “bigotry” and “intolerance” are mis- and over-used. But that makes it more important that we speak out against the real thing when it’s there.

President Trump began his first address to Congress by citing “recent threats targeting Jewish Community Centers and vandalism of Jewish cemeteries,” and a “shooting in Kansas City.” This was his prologue to saying that the United States “stands united in condemning hate and evil in all of its forms.”

I’m so glad that he spoke out.

But let me also hasten to add that we shouldn’t leave it to the President to remind us of the need to condemn hate and evil – that’s the job of the Church.

The past few months have witnessed, to borrow from Yeats’ poem, “The Second Coming,” a “rough beast” slouching to be born. That “rough beast” is open, and sometimes violent, expressions of bigotry and intolerance.

Now Christians have ample reasons to be wary of those words “bigotry” and “intolerance,” since we’re often unjustly accused of both. But to use the medieval Latin phrase, “abusus non tollit usum,” the misuse of something does not negate its proper use. There are such things as bigotry and intolerance.

Some of it, such as Texas high school students taunting their Hispanic opponents at a basketball game with chants of “build that wall!” are easy to rationalize as youthful hi-jinks, until you put yourself, as Jesus commands us to, in the shoes of the kids being taunted.

Other examples, such as the killing of an Indian-born engineer, and the wounding of two other people by a man who had earlier yelled “get out of my country!” are impossible to ignore. The fact that the man may been under the influence of alcohol when he pulled the trigger does not make the crime less troubling.

While alcohol lowers inhibitions, it doesn’t create the impulses being inhibited in the first place. To quote another Latin phrase, “in vino veritas,” or wine brings out the truth.

Likewise, the vandalizing of Jewish cemeteries in St. Louis, Philadelphia, and Rochester, New York, along with bomb threats against 120 Jewish Community Centers across the country is nothing less than alarming.

And it’s not just Jewish Community Centers. In the past two months, four mosques have been deliberately set on fire.

The good news is that, amidst all this hate, we have seen examples of grace: Two American Muslims raised over $140,000 to repair the damage done to Jewish cemeteries, and Muslim veterans have vowed to protect Jewish cemeteries. As one veteran tweeted, “If your synagogue or Jewish cemetery needs someone to stand guard, count me in. Islam requires it.”

Strictly speaking, while I am thankful for his words, I am not sure that it does. But there is no questions about Christianity. As Paul says in Acts 17, God determines when and where we live. And as Esther so courageously demonstrated in difficult times, silence is not an option.

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What I Learned About Racism From Atticus Finch

A scene from 'To Kill a Mockingbird'
A scene from ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ (YouTube)

Besides the Bible, To Kill a Mockingbird is my favorite book in the world—and the movie version is my favorite film. That’s partly because I’m a Southerner who appreciates this painfully probing look at Southern racism. I also love the novel because no one has ever made fictional characters come to life better than author Harper Lee.

Atticus Finch, the small-town Alabama lawyer who defends a black man in a rape trial in the 1930s, is a hero to me because of his courage to fight social injustice. I feel as if I know him, along with Atticus’ children, Jem and Scout; their black maid, Calpurnia; their neighbors Miss Maudie and Mrs. Dubose; the mysterious Boo Radley; and Tom Robinson, the man who is falsely accused of rape in a biased culture that refused to believe a black man could ever be innocent.

I thought of Atticus Finch and Tom Robinson many times last week. I wished I could have invited them over to my house for a glass of iced tea. We would have a lot to talk about.

On July 4th we celebrated Independence Day, and then we mourned for the next few days—first because of the questionable killings of two black men, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, in Louisiana and Minnesota, and then because of the shooting of five police officers in Dallas during a peaceful protest. Not since the 1960s has America felt such overwhelming racial tension.

As I listened to the chatter on the news and on social media last week, I couldn’t help but remember Atticus’ advice to his daughter. He told Scout: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view—until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

Isn’t that what we should do today? We cannot hope to rid ourselves of the spirit of racism that haunts our country until we sincerely try to understand each other.

Atticus Finch felt compassion for his black client, Tom Robinson, because he drove to Tom’s house in the country and sat on his front porch and got to know his family. He saw the fear on Tom’s face and heard the racial slurs he endured from local townsfolk. Atticus saw the world from Tom’s perspective. Atticus’ children learned the same lesson when they went to church with Calpurnia and saw how black Christians worshiped.

That’s the only way we’re going to end this ugly racial divide. We have to talk to each other. We have to sit on our porches together. We have to become friends and share each other’s burdens. We have to worship together. Laws alone will never tear down the walls of racism. Only compassion can destroy this evil.

I was not born black so I don’t understand what my black friends have experienced. I have never been stopped by a police officer and interrogated when I wasn’t doing anything wrong. I have never walked into a store and felt people staring at me or treating me with suspicion. I have never had to endure racial slurs. I have never been turned down for a job interview because of my race.

But I have black and Hispanic friends who have experienced racial cruelty. I’ve listened to their pain. I put myself in their place. I crawled into their skin.

When will we stop being afraid of each other?

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Today marks the 100th anniversary of one of the most horrific episodes of racial violence in American history: the mutilation and public burning of Jesse Washington. It happened in my adopted hometown of Waco, Texas.

Historians call the late 19th and early 20th century the “nadir” of American race relations. The American South was ravaged and destabilized by the Civil War. The corrupt and abusive system of chattel slavery had formed the social structure of much of the pre-Civil War South. Emancipation had wrecked that structure.

For many whites, violence against “insolent” blacks seemed warranted in the war’s disorienting aftermath.

We Can’t Move On 

It wasn’t a coincidence that the Ku Klux Klan was founded right after the Civil War, or that “lynching” became much more common in the post-Civil War South than it had ever been before. White Southerners were grasping to reassert order in their upside-down region. To be sure, the whole nation was experiencing its share of racial strife: the Klan of the 1920s was as big in the northern states as the South, for instance.

But the South has a special burden to carry with regard to those racial “nadir” decades. As my Baylor colleague James SoRelle has noted, more than 3,000 lynchings happened in America between 1889 and 1918. The vast majority of the victims, like Jesse Washington, were African Americans, and the vast majority of lynchings happened in the Southern states.

If you’re from the South, you don’t have to dig around too much to find hideous examples of racial violence from around the turn of the 20th century. But you do sometimes have to dig. My native hometown of Aiken, South Carolina, witnessed the lynching of three members of an African American family, the Lowmans, in 1926. I didn’t learn about that lynching until I was in my doctoral program at the University of Notre Dame.

Lightstock
Lightstock

I can understand why some might not be eager to discuss controversial topics like these lynchings. Shouldn’t we just move on, some might ask? Others would say—rightly, in my view—“No, we can’t move on.” Not until the history of racial violence in America is more fully acknowledged.

Hometown Horror 

The steps leading to Jesse Washington’s lynching began when the body of a white woman named Lucy Fryer was discovered. Fryer had been killed by blows to the head. Authorities identified Washington, a 17-year-old field hand at the Fryers’ farm, as the chief suspect. Scholarly studies have debated how likely it was that Washington was involved with the crime, but the evidence against him was mixed. It included a confession of guilt from Washington, but there were no eyewitnesses to the murder. Washington’s lawyers offered no defense of their client.

A hastily summoned all-white jury convicted Washington of the killing. Then a mob of whites seized Washington and lynched him before a lunchtime audience of thousands in downtown Waco. They cut off parts of Washington’s body, hung him from a chain, and slowly burned him to death. A photographer took pictures of the loathsome scene, providing rare visual documentation of an actual lynching.

Reactions to Washington’s execution ran the gamut from hearty approval to disgust and revulsion.

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Ray Ortlund

Is your church racist?

December 2, 2015<!––>

jesus_saves_kkk

You are all one in Christ Jesus.  Galatians 3:28

He himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility.  Ephesians 2:14

Christ is all, and in all.  Colossians 3:11

I write to my white brothers.  And I want to ask you to consider this searching question that I also ask myself.  Is your church racist?

At one level, the obvious answer is No.  People who resonate with TGC tend to align their convictions with the Bible.  So the verses quoted above most of us will affirm strongly.  The photograph above most of us will find disturbing.  It is so blatant.  But our strong agreement in these obvious ways only makes the question more worthy of conscientious reflection: Is your church racist?  Is mine?

Here are some diagnostic questions I ask myself, to press into deeper insight.  Is your church a white church where black people are welcome, or is your church a Christian church where all who love Jesus are equally accepted and equally influential?  Are the black people in your church receiving and adapting to your church’s culture, or are they, with you, shaping and reshaping your church’s culture?  Are there two circles of belonging in your church?  Is there an inner circle of “us” and an outer circle of “them” — the latter belonging too, but not in the same way, not with the same embrace, the same identity, the same “us”?  Does the “us-ness” in your church need to be broken and re-created, according to the parameters of the one gospel for all sinners who are standing equally on the same footing before the one Savior of all?  Or are the unspoken ground rules for the outer circle more demanding than the ground rules for the inner circle?  Do the outer-circle members have something to prove that the inner-circle members don’t have to prove?  Is there any emotional aloofness dividing your church, or are you loving every member with the same emotional intensity?  Finally, are the black members of your church on the same paths of growth and discipleship such that they too are on their way toward becoming leaders, deacons, elders and pastors?  Or is it inconceivable that you could receive, rejoice over and submit to a black lead pastor in your church?

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by

November 11, 2015

Tim Wolfe, former President of the University of Missouri school system, resigned on Tuesday when criticism burst over his handling of racism at Mizzou. (You can review a full timeline of recent events.) Protesting the administration’s apparent apathy in response, Jonathan Butler—a University of Missouri grad student—began a hunger strike. He said that he did not plan to end his strike until he died or Wolfe resigned. His strike won not only Wolfe’s resignation but Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin’s as well.

Butler’s strike incited the support of thousands on social media. Rallying behind Butler, the Mizzou football team lent their protest as well. Thirty-two members of the football team, with the support of their coach, said they would not play again until the president resigned.

Many students perceived Wolfe’s response—when he did finally respond to these acts—as tepid at best. Thus the protests, the hunger, the anger, and misunderstandings abounded. It’s the world’s way to pass on understanding and seeing one another, on loving one another, until it’s a PR problem. If the Tigers did not play their football game, they faced losing at least a million dollars.

I do not know the motivations of Wolfe and the Mizzou administrators. But I do know that God paid an infinitely higher cost to ensure that his own people would love one another, not for their reputation or their school’s reputation, but for his. God crushed his only Son to glorify himself by reconciling man with himself and man with each other. God then enjoins upon his followers to humbly and compassionately work out this reconciliation—to understand and love one another—to put others so much before ourselves that we essentially die to ourselves for each other (1 Pet. 3:8; Phil. 2:3). Christians, in doing so, emulate our Lord who died for us. We stupefy the world, directing their gaze to a glorious God (John 13:35).

While I won’t evaluate the solutions Wolfe did or did not offer, I can testify to the more excellent way that God offers from my own racist experience.

The More Excellent Way

By God’s grace, my local church leaders and members pray publicly and frequently to be united amid all our diversity. God recently answered this prayer for my wife and me this past Sunday as we walked to our church’s evening service.

It was one of those particularly encouraging Sundays, given that my wife and I got into an argument right before the service. By God’s grace, though, we quickly worked through it. Yet as we walked to our church’s building—which is located in one of the nicest parts of our mid-Atlantic city—a white gentlemen walking past us glanced at me, an African American. Then he glared at my wife, who is white, who is beautiful. This gentleman started loudly singing the following words:

“Too many niggers, too many niggers.”

Immediately I turned around and stared at this man. He stopped, looked at me, and said, “This city is the rape capitol of the world, and you’re surprised, nigger?” He turned around. He walked away.

My first response to this was shock, anger, and sadness. Left to myself, I would’ve despaired; I would’ve been bitter and believed that all white people think this way. You can imagine how such a belief would wreck my marriage and curb any love I had for my predominantly white church. But by God’s grace, when I turned around that night, two white sisters from my church—whom I’d never met—were walking right behind me. And when this man started singing this horrible song, one of the sisters compassionately looked at me, and she so graciously said, “Brother, just keep walking.” It was as if God said that to me. I know in my flesh I might have hit this man. But by God’s grace, our instinct was to stop right there and pray for this man and his salvation. By God’s grace, we blessed him even though he cursed me. I praise God those sisters and my wife—though ethnically different than me—suffered alongside me that night.

Divine Love

When I gather with my church, God reminds me that I have hundreds of people with me. That same Sunday night, when this white man accosted me and my wife, the pastor leading the service asked me to pray for unity in diversity in our church. (God’s providence is blatantly ironic sometimes!) I praise God that he’s given my church the grace to maintain that unity because if it wasn’t for God’s grace, many believers could be like that man or worse. I could be that man or worse.

So even though that incident with this white man makes me think twice about holding my wife’s hand in public, this event is cause for God’s praise. Later in the week my pastor—a white brother and dear friend—helped me fight any wrongful shame and embarrassment and encouraged me to share this event with my church. By God’s grace, the following Sunday I stood before my church to explain this humiliating event. Though made up of many different kinds of people, my church—as one family—mourned, wept, and prayed together. I have never experienced a corporate love like this especially after undergoing an individual’s hate.

I write this testimony today filled with hope because of God’s grace and love through my church. I thank God for my congregation’s consistent love and unity; it helps me fend off bitterness that the Mizzou’s of the world can perpetuate. Yes, racism still really happens and hurts real people. But my church’s love for one another reminds me of the hope we have in the gospel. Its unity amid all our diversity gives me a picture of what God intended for humanity.

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by  

June 19, 2015

Nine people are dead. Before we move on to the theological implications and the clarion calls—the social media posts and the half-baked diatribes—let us mourn. Let us pray because nine God-image bearing persons were massacred in Charleston, South Carolina. To describe the horrors, our words fail us.

But God does not. And his Word speaks to the terrors of identity idolatry. It speaks to how we demonize the opposite of what we idolize; we devalue the opposite of what we treasure; we hate the opposite of what we love. And Dylann Roof—the Charleston gunman, the domestic terrorist—ultimately loved his ethnicity. He rang out with the worst manifestation of his hatred: he took the lives of those who were the opposite of white, yet who bore the same image he did. Again, our words, so feeble, and our experiences, so limited, can hardly speak to this. But we don’t need our words or experiences to engage this because we have the Word of God.

Consider its commentary on the beginning of human history. What hand did Satan play in Eden? He laid his regular ace: attacking identity. He tempted Eve to believe God was not who he said he is. Adam negated his identity as a male, as one who was to protect and lead; Eve wandered outside of Adam’s authority, foiling her womanhood. Both actors took a good thing—identity—and made it an ultimate thing, which is the essence of idolatry. Both attempted to rise above their author, grasping for his identity, grasping for God-likeness. The tragic irony? They were already like him, for he had made them in his likeness (Gen. 1:26–28). But still they grasped, and so they died. God removed them from his fellowship.

The Tragedy of Identity Idolatry 

Identity idolatry leads to toil and enmity. It leads to death. Worst of all, it leads to separation from God. This is at least one lesson we can learn from Charleston. And yet, to lesser extents, we see this lesson all around in different manifestations.

Dylann Roof’s rampage comes on the high heels of Vanity Fair’s reveal of Caitlynn Jenner, one who seemingly has everything yet is enveloped in a poor identity he trusts will satisfy. Roof’s horrible actions also trail Rachel Dolezal, a former NAACP chapter president who was caught lying about her ethnicity. She seems to elevate being black, a good thing, above anything and anyone else. All these are people. All these people are in the wrong place of hate and mental disillusion. And that’s partly due to their sinful self-loving, which violently turns into a loathing—possibly of self or of others—but certainly of God and the image he has so graciously bestowed on humans, the crown of his creation.

The tragedy, as my friend stated so well in this loving piece on Jenner, is that the snake is eating itself.

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By Devin Maddox

Though some of the Bonhoeffer intelligentsia rushed to criticize Eric Metaxas’s Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (Thomas Nelson, 2010), few can argue whether any book has more broadly brought Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s name to the fore. Though American readers have long read DiscipleshipLife Together, and Letters and Papers from PrisonMetaxas’s biographical behemoth reintroduced Bonhoeffer with unprecedented reach.

Many of Metaxas’s readers were surprised to discover details of Bonhoeffer’s life they never knew. Having been made available years before in the English translation of Eberhard Bethge’s unrivaled masterpiece (on which Metaxas based much of his own work), Bonhoeffer’s personal journey was veiled in relative obscurity, left to the Bonhoeffer scholars and historians until Metaxas popularized it for an American audience. We are truly in his debt.

I often hear profound interest expressed in Bonhoeffer’s time in the United States, particularly his time studying at Union Theological Seminary in New York City (1931) after readers learn about Bonhoeffer’s life story for the first time. They are interested to know, for example, that Bonhoeffer was deeply affected by his experience worshiping and engaging in youth work at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. They are intrigued to learn that Bonhoeffer formed a lifelong friendship with an African American student named Frank Fisher, who led Bonhoeffer on a trip to Howard University (Washington, D.C.), where Fisher was denied food service at a local restaurant (Bonhoeffer refused to dine there). They are shocked to learn Bonhoeffer visited the Deep South and stared Jim Crow in the face with his own two eyes.

It’s safe to say that these experiences, among others, informed Bonhoeffer’s convictions about racism for the rest of his life. But it would be a mistake to assume he did not grow in understanding. Bonhoeffer, like all of us, had blind spots.

Take for example the following correspondence between Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his brother Karl Friedrich during his post-doctoral studies in America.

To Karl-Friedrich Bonhoeffer:

The separation of whites from blacks in the Southern states really does make a rather shameful impression. In railways that separation extends to even the tiniest details. I found that the cars of the Negroes generally look cleaner than the others. It also pleased me when the whites had to crowd into their railway cars while often only a single person was sitting in the entire railway car for the Negroes. The way the Southerners talk about the Negroes is simply repugnant, and in this regard the pastors are no better than the others. I still believe that the spiritual songs of the Southern Negroes represent some of the greatest artistic achievements in America. It is a bit unnerving that a country with so inordinately many slogans about brotherhood, peace, and so on, such things still continue completely uncorrected. (DWE Vol. 10, 269)

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, January 2, 1931

Karl-Friedrich, Bonhoeffer’s brother, replied:

To Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

I’m glad to hear you have the opportunity for studying the Negro problem so thoroughly. When I was there I had the impression it was really the question, at least for people with a conscience, and when I received the off of the appointment at Harvard it was one of the primary reasons for my disinclination to move there completely, since I wanted neither to come into this inheritance myself nor to pass it on to my hypothetical children. I really can’t see how it can be corrected, and I think in this case as in mathematics there are really some insoluble problems. (A bit stupid! I notice it myself.) In any event, our “Jewish question” is a joke compared to it; only a few would still claim they are repressed here. At least not in Frankfurt. (DWE Vol. 10, 276)

Karl-Friedrich Bonhoeffer, January 21, 1931

It’s rather shocking, in hindsight, to consider how two men so personally invested in fighting racism in the German context could have been so blind to the truth just two years before Hitler was named chancellor. The so-called Jewish question was in fact no joke.

But neither was racism in America. Bonhoeffer and his brother saw a serious problem in America with distinct clarity, though they underestimated the severity of racism in their own context. We need to be careful on this point, but it’s safe to say that the racial prejudice in both contexts was atrocious.

And so often it is the same way with us. We easily identify blind spots in contexts other than our own while nurturing our own forms of blindness. Our own blind spots would not be so if we could see them (that’s why they are aptly named).

For the rest of the post…

In 1933, after Adolf Hitler came into power, Dietrich Bonhoeffer faced many challenges. One challenge was the definition of the “German Christian”…

The General Church elections were held July 23 (1933), and these plainly forecasted the coming struggle. The “German Christians,” those clergy and layman who took a racist view of the German Church and sided with Hitler, gained 70% of the votes. Early in September the Prussian Gereral Synod, an important organ of the Church hierarchy, agreed to the Aryan Clauses. Only weeks later, Hitler insured that an election would make Army Chaplain Ludwig Muller, an ardent German Christian Reichsbischofthe major governing figure in the German Evangelical Church (William Kuhns, In Pursuit of Dietrich Bonhoeffer48).

How would Christians in twenty-first century America react if the both church leadership embraced teachings that are contrary to the truths of God’s Word?

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